Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Ants Are Coming, The DVDs Are Here!

Head on over to Cinefantastique and check out my review of Phase IV. We really dig Saul Bass’ only theatrical feature and applaud Legend and Paramount for finally releasing it, though we are less fond of its Best Buy exclusivity.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What's So Funny?

Okay, I know it’s a little early to get excited about Watchmen. It’s not out until March, and unlike the trailer, I’m not sure that Zack Snyder quite deserves to be called a “visionary”. But damn if this doesn’t push all the right buttons for me. Sure, some of the costumes are a bit off (it looks like they tried a bit too hard to make them look cool, when some – especially Night Owl – should look kind of clunky)

And yes, I got a bit fed up with all the slow motion in Snyder’s previous 300; but the slo-mo trailer for Watchmen doesn’t bother me because it’s the perfect introduction for all these characters that have been living in our heads for the last 2 decades. Rorschach, full of contempt – Dr. Manhattan, effectively ethereal and other-worldly – Ozymandias, aloof and vain – and then there’s The Comedian.

Eddie Blake may be one of the most unlikely heroes in the long history of comic books. Killed off just before the book begins, we learn about Eddie and his alter ego, The Comedian, through flashbacks. We see a military honor guard at his funeral, and it’s obvious that he was a hero of some note. But that’s just the beginning; we soon learn about the darker side of Eddie – things that people unfamiliar with the comic should avoid reading at all costs.

It’s very encouraging to see that Snyder, in just a handful of production stills released online and a few brief shots in the trailer (including his fatal defenestration), seems to have nailed the look of The Comedian. He may be a smug, right wing rouge on the verge of homicidal rage, but he’s our smug, right wing rouge.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Death Dives Without An Emissions Sticker

The following is humbly submitted as part of Final Girl’s Film Club series. All credit for choosing The Car goes to her.

Oh great brothers of the night, who rideth out upon the hot winds of Hell, who dwelleth in the Devil’s lair; move and appear!” – Anton LaVey

With the above quote, so begineth Elliot Silverstein’s The Car, born, not in Hell, but at Universal Studios in 1977. The Car is in the rather unique position of being the bastard child of two Steven Spielberg films, 1975’s suspense classic Jaws, and its lesser known antecedent, a minor masterpiece about a driverless truck menacing TV’s Dennis Weaver, 1971’s Duel. With nearly every studio in the world churning out Jaws rip-offs, it made sense for that film’s studio to get in on the act. 1977 was a tough year for Universal Pictures, with big budget disappointments like Sorcerer and MacArthur sucking up resources and replacing them with negative reviews and nervous theater owners. The Car would be the perfect salve for a hemorrhaging studio; a low cost horror programmer, sprinkled with inexpensive but familiar actors (utter that phrase 5 times and James Brolin and Ronny Cox appear in your living room) and the lush trappings that the resources of a major Hollywood studio could provide.

The story takes place in a sleepy desert town in what appears to be a southwest state (although I heard a character mention Utah later in the film – anyway, it’s not important). On one bright, crisp morning, a menacing black sedan appears and quickly dispatches a pair of groovy bicyclists and French horn-doodling hitchhiker John Rubinstein – a busy morning, even for the Dark Lord. The cases soon get turned over to local deputy Wade Parent (Brolin), a widower with two young children and a fiancĂ©e, Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd). He’s not on the case for 24 hours before the town sheriff (John Marley, the “piece of ass” gourmand from The Godfather) is mowed down on main street and his best buddy Luke (Ronny Cox, getting great billing for a nothing part) falls off the wagon due to Devil car-related stress. The attacks continue, including one launched against a band practice led by the future Mrs. Parent (more on that later), but it’s only when the car is unable to enter the hallowed ground of a cemetery that the true, evil nature of it becomes apparent, and our heroes realize that it will take more than a few explosives to end its reign of terror – it will take a whole lot of explosives!

One problem we’ve always had with The Car is that it’s never made clear if the titular auto is meant to be a manifestation of the Devil himself, or merely his ride. We have trouble imagining the Devil driving a car like this – it was clearly designed to look like a demonic Cadillac, or an environmentalist’s fever dream of a Detroit gas guzzler. However, the end result looks more like something Dick Dastardly would keep at his summer place on the Cape. This is the car that would pick the Devil up at the airport.

But The Car has problems that reach beyond the conceptual. While nobody likes to imagine being run over, there’s nothing inherently terrifying about watching it happen on film. Instead of being struck still with terror, we wonder where the stunt driver was seated and how much the camera was overcranked. Jaws plugged directly into a primordial fear of mankind while The Car has to remain content with exploiting the mundane concerns of 20th Century pedestrians. And those looking for a parable of mankind’s obsession with technology coming back to haunt him will come up craps as well. The Car may have been more successful had it been retooled at the factory as a pro-ecology horror picture, with the car as a murderous manifestation of our obsession with the auto. Steven King solved the problem to a degree in his short story Trucks by having all vehicles rebel against us and replacing a literal Devil with a figurative one. Interestingly, King himself turned the story into a feature film, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, where he ditched the visual elegance of The Car in favor of a gory, sweat soaked demolition derby, populated by some of the most gratuitous redneck stereotypes ever seen.

Interestingly, Maximum Overdrive seems to have borrowed at least one major beat from The Car. The scene begins at an outdoor band practice led by music teacher (and 70s television mainstay) Kathleen Lloyd. There have already been 4 deaths in the town attributed to a mysterious black sedan, so the proceedings are overseen by a deputy in a tall watchtower. All is well until we catch a glint of light in the distance; the glint moves closer as a dust cloud appears in its wake. When the near-sighted deputy finally sees it, the car is practically on top of the kids – coasting just under the desert dunes with only the roof visible (if this setup sounds at all like Jaws, expect a call from Universal’s legal department telling you how wrong you are). Lloyd leads the kids into an old cemetery, fenced in by a decidedly un-intimating rock wall. She then takes the opportunity to shout at, taunt, and belittle the manhood of the car, as it spins angry demonic doughnuts just beyond the cemetery gates. It’s almost as if someone on the crew hit Lloyd (ordinarily a very capable actress) with a blowdart loaded with methamphetamines, as her shrill spiel goes on for several gloriously uninterrupted minutes. Did Stephen King plan the scene in Maximum Overdrive where a pre-Simpsons Yeardley Smith, enraged by some act of auto-homicide and looking (along with the rest of the cast) like she’d just been dipped in a vat of stale beer and sweat, storms out of the truck stop and screams “We made you! WE MADE YOU!!!!!!!” as a homage? Already being familiar with The Car, I always felt that the scene played like a tribute – like a transvestite doing Cher’s 70s act in a Vegas show – and gave King major props.

And while we’re talking about the cemetery, I’d like to suggest that the car’s inability to enter it is the input of Anton LeVay. LeVay, founder and High Priest of the Church of Satan (tax exempt?), was a minor celebrity in the 70s, ingeniously capitalizing on the growing interest in the occult sparked by films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. He cornered the market on Satanism through canny appearances on talk shows presenting himself as a legitimate authority on all things devilish. Despite being erroneously credited with being an actor and consultant on Rosemary’s Baby (he had nothing to do with the film) LeVay received actual screen credit on 1975’s The Devil’s Rain, which possibly led Universal to bring him onboard The Car as an (un-credited) consultant. I like to imagine a black-robed LeVay sitting in a conference room at Universal, giving his notes to a bleary-eyed production assistant, mentally snapping the neck of the executive who decided that The Car needed 100% satanic accuracy. Unfortunately, there’s no record as to exactly what LeVay contributed to the picture, and aside from idle chatter regarding the hallowed ground of the cemetery being a no parking zone for the Devil’s wheels, there’s not much actual “research” on display.

None of this should suggest that The Car is without merit, even beyond its considerable camp value. There are a few good scares to be had, particularly the handling of the death of a major character late in the film. It’s also beautifully photographed, with the blasted red hues of the southwest (?) desert beautifully captured in director Silverstein’s 2.35 Panavision frame. A few old friends pop up in the supporting cast, too; Peckinpah regular R G Armstrong and the late, great Roy Jensen are on hand, and...did I mention John Rubinstein as a French horn-playing hitchhiker?

The Car also marked the beginning of quite a career jag for star James Brolin, who followed this up with the far more entertaining thriller Capricorn One (1978), the rough but effective Amityville Horror (1979), and the sadly overlooked 1980 kidnap/revenge drama Night of the Juggler, featuring some of the best NYC location shooting that you’ve never seen. With his chiseled features and silent movie-villain beard, Brolin almost seemed like a parody of a leading man – just a little too good looking – but he made some pretty smart career choices before television and Babs took him away from us. I hear his kid isn’t bad either.

With the correct expectations, The Car can be a pretty fun ride, just be mindful who sees you driving it. Sure, it’s cheesy – but it’s the kind of cheese that just isn’t made anymore. We haven’t had a decent possessed car movie since 1983’s Christine, and now, sadly, it seems like horror movies in general, much like automobiles, are being made better overseas.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Watch the Watchmen

Warner Bros has been frantically trying to shut down the myriad sites that are hosting the trailer for Zach Snyder’s eagerly awaited Watchmen. As of 3am Eastern time, Empire still had a very nice looking version, and Apple, who I just don’t feel like linking to nowadays, has a 720p version here. The trailer was supposed to debut in front of The Dark Knight, and Warners would like to keep it that way – so see it while you can. If you haven’t read what is unquestionably one of the 5 greatest comics ever created, most of the images in the trailer won’t mean much – but they ought to give the faithful a case of the tingles (Snyder nails the look of Rorschach and The Comedian ). It’s the best work that Alan Moore has ever done, and that’s a damn huge statement.

I’ll be spending the next 20 hours avoiding trying not to read anymore about TDK than I already have.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Au Revoir, Xploited Cinema

One thing I swore I’d never do when I started writing was to begin a piece with “Kids today will never understand…” and do it without its two supporting trestles, irony and mockery. But today I grant myself a special dispensation.

Kids today will never understand what it was like to love a video store. Unless you came of movie-watching age in the early 80s, there’s no way for you to have known their importance. I’ve been quite happy with Netflix, but it’s a mailing service – a corporate entity unable to give or receive emotion of any sort. And don’t get me started on the chain monstrosities like Blockbuster; their stomp and scorch policy all but killed off the neighborhood video store, allowing them to pick up massive amounts of inventory, many of which were – and some still are – out of print. The stores I’m talking about were around before all that. It may sound ridiculous, but the stores I’m talking about actually had character. Their inventories reflected the tastes of the store manager and staff; going through the aisles was like going through the massive collection of another fan. Sure, there was always the necessity of bulk purchases of the blockbuster titles, but the fun came in combing the horror section to find lots of Hammer studio titles, but less American slashers. Or maybe they would group the releases from Continental and Paragon Home Video together, as their glossy, oversized boxes seemed to create a genre of their own. I can still remember the day that Video Fleet got rid of their Beta tapes. And you could always get great recommendations; maybe my memories are becoming more idealized, but the people who ran those small stores really seemed to love movies and were actually able to recommend titles based on the tastes of specific customers.

The era of the brick & mortar video rental store is quickly coming to a close. Internet rentals and sales is king now, with a digital downloading future just around the corner. Just yesterday, I received the very sad news that one of the few e-tailers that carried on the neighborhood video store tradition is nearing the end of its run. Xploited Cinema has been around for many years, run by the amazingly knowledgeable Tony Simonelli. Xploited sells DVDs, soundtracks, books and magazines, and even HD discs from all over the world. And while they specialize in the horror/cult arena, their incredibly wide ranging catalog covers Bergman and Kurosawa as well as Fulci and Bava.

It was always possible to buy bootleg DVDs from any one of a hundred grey-market sellers, either online or at a horror convention, and their quality ranged from poor to downright crummy. Xploited only sells the genuine article; while it’s easy enough to order UK discs from Amazon UK, it’s unlikely that they’ll have Tony’s detailed notations, telling you what you need to play it, or what this particular version has that others may not. And in the unlikely event that you had a question that wasn’t addressed on the page, Tony was always happy to answer any questions via email. But just as importantly, Xploited was dependable – if they said it was “in stock”, it was, and all my orders (and there were many) shipped immediately and safely.

The bad news can be found here. They’ll still exist for the immediate future, but catalog titles aren’t going to be restocked and there will be no more new releases. The news came as a double shock because just 2 days before hearing of their closing, I received my most recent package of goodies from them. For the sake of posterity, and to show just how wide their product net was cast, it was:


Cheers, Tony.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hulking Out On TV

The last few weeks have provided an abundance of classic TV shows releases on DVD. Some, such as The Invaders and Mannix, are making their debut on the format, while others, like Hawaii Five-O and Mission: Impossible, already have several seasons under their digital belt. After a large delivery from Amazon, a friend remarked “You couldn’t possibly have time to watch them all!”, and she’s probably right. My counter argument was based on the idea that actually watching them wasn’t the point – it was having them with the option of watching. This didn’t fly, and I was left in the familiar position of looking like a maniac.

I grew up in the 70s as an unapologetic TV junkie. I would watch shows like Banacek and Rockford Files when I was way too young to follow plot, but the theme songs and credits hooked me, and for the next 55min I felt like I had tagged along with an older brother and was hanging out with his friends; I didn’t have the slightest idea what anyone was talking about, but I was confident that I was in the company of cool. By the time of Quincy M.E. and the dawn of the 80s, I was following plots (note to Jim Rockford – never trust an old army buddy), looking forward to the reappearance of familiar performers (“great, it’s that guy with the moustache that looks like an angry Tom Selleck!”) and beginning to realize that the heyday of the mystery series was almost over. In the 80s I witnessed the last gasp of the charm quotient in the detective show; Remington Steele and Simon & Simon played heavily off the considerable comedic acumen of its stars, emphasizing character interplay over plot. The wind began to change with Law & Order and its cinema verite style and strict adherence to plot at the expense of character and back-story. It took mass audiences a few years to catch on – it would be the near round-the-clock reruns on A&E in the late 90s that turned it into a massive hit – but within a few years it became its own acronym-happy franchise, with SVU and CI satellite shows dominating NBCs prime time schedule. Soon, CBS took the detective to the edge of Sci-Fi with CSI, which dragged the science of forensic pathology from Quincy (where a body was never shown on an autopsy table) into a near-futuristic world where millions of dollars worth of lab equipment and time is spent on each and every homicide in Las Vegas (and, later, Miami and New York). Want to see a bullet pass through a pancreas in high definition? Pull up a chair! To this day, CBS’s Pathoporn lineup have proved a ratings bonanza – and become the standard template for police shows.
The purpose of that lengthy diatribe was to partially justify the acquisition of dozens of seasons of television shows that are older than I am. Besides the abysmal quality of what passes for television drama today, I can’t get over the obscene convenience of being able to hold an entire season of a favorite show in just a handful of DVDs. Some postscript cheers and jeers – some shows, like Hawaii Five-O and Mission: Impossible have been given sterling digital brush-ups and look positively luminous (oddly, the same studio – Paramount/CBS – that seemingly takes such great care of its television legacy, arbitrarily decides to release only frustrating ½ season editions of The Fugitive and Streets of San Francisco).

On the subject of The Fugitive, I think that I may have stumbled across a bit of a personal touchstone. I grew up watching The Fugitive in syndication; not actually following it, mind you, just watching it. Something about the injustice of Dr. Richard Kimble’s persecution filtered down to me through the weary gaze of David Jansen (and was there ever a more perfect marriage of actor and role? No matter who Jansen played, he looked like the Devil was 5 steps behind him). While I’m not sure that I realized he was a doctor, I definitely knew that he didn’t like working as a stock boy or a ranch hand. I also knew that he could help people who were sick, and that if he ever displayed too much medical knowledge, his cover might be blown. It’s always been one of my favorite shows, but it wasn’t until this past year that I realized that The Fugitive had a sister show.

Produced nearly a full decade later, The Incredible Hulk was a true television rarity; a successful adaptation of a comic character to the screen. Note please that prior to Superman: The Movie in 1978, the only popular comic character to make the leap was the ultra-camp Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward in the 60s, so it must have seemed like a huge gamble to take on such a potentially silly title. But producer Kenneth Johnson knew exactly what he was doing when he approached Bill Bixby, a fiercely intelligent actor with several series under his belt (and the beginnings of a long career behind the camera, as well). Bixby was impressed with the scripts that dealt with the loneliness and isolation of David (formally Bruce) Banner, forced to roam the country incognito until he can stop his inner-demon from being an outer. I’m not saying that Johnson had made a study of The Fugitive, but there are some glaring similarities. Both are doctors who are wanted for murder (in Banner’s case, he’s both the suspect and victim) forced to travel under assumed names, and mostly through hitchhiking. Both are pursued by a determined professional (for Kimble, Lt. Gerard – for Banner, reporter Jack McGee) who’ll stop at nothing to find them. Both have to “play dumb” so no one suspects their true intelligence (“You’re too smart to be picking peas, Mr…. Baxter, is it?”). But perhaps the most important similarity is in the show structure; once the series relative premises have been set via narration during the opening credits, there is very little story arc that new viewers have to concern themselves with. Each individual show could play as its own isolated playlet – a blessing for syndication – even though The Fugitive has one of the most celebrated series-length story lines ever on television.

Through 4 seasons and 120 episodes, The Fugitive never lost steam, and carried the same level of high-caliber writing and acting throughout its run. It was also allowed a television rarity – the chance to finish up its run in grand style with a feature-length final episode (“Tuesday, August 29: The day the running stopped”) but The Incredible Hulk wouldn’t be allowed the same courtesy. By its 5th season, the show – which was far more expensive to produce than it appeared – was dipping in the ratings, and no longer believed to be worth the price tag. It simply disappeared off the airwaves into the eternal sea of syndication. There were a few TV movies produced in the late 80s, but were produced in a cheap-jack fashion, and seemed to be more occupied with clumsy stage-setting for other Marvel heroes like Thor and Daredevil, than continuing the Hulk/Banner storyline. Sadly, both David Janssen and Bill Bixby passed on long before their time; Bixby from cancer at age 59, and Janssen from a heart attack at an impossibly young 48.